Monday, September 15, 2014

Human See Human Do

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”

It is important for the photographer to have a verbal vocabulary of what, how, and why he sees. Such working philosophies rarely emerge from a vacuum but are often a compendium of ideas amalgamated from different sources. A book like John Berger's Ways of Seeing, though somewhat outdated (originally published in 1972) and in need of a contemporary update, is a worthwhile read not only for the visualist, but the layman as well (supposedly everyone who goes to art school reads it at some point.) It is easy to take “seeing” for granted and most of us do in fact (I know I did). This is true especially if one does not travel much and becomes accustomed to familiar landscapes. But Berger, coming from a Marxist humanist background, persuasively argues that there is a subtext to our conclusions of seeing-- that they are colored by education, upbringing, prejudices, social standing, and wealth (or lack of it). But for purposes of clarity, Ways of Seeing is focused specifically on art and advertising.

A short book that can be read in one intense sitting, the treatise is divided into seven parts, four verbal expositions and three pictorial “stories.” The first essay reiterates Walter Benjamin's classic pamphlet The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; the second explores the depiction of women in oil paintings; the third essay discusses the long period of oil painting 1500-1900 as a province of the rich in a class war context; the final piece ruminates on advertising. More or less, the pictorial montages in between the four written works visually supplement his ideas.

For a small book, Berger covers a lot of ground and utilizes paintings and/or adverts to illustrate his points. Many of the ideas are familiar if you've delved into social and media criticism, or if one is thoughtful and has a tendency to look beyond surfaces into perhaps more truthful contexts. Context is extremely important. Everything has layers of meaning that suggest economic, political, and social histories, whether they be paintings or advertisements, not to mention residences, stores, amusement parks, office towers, restaurants-- just about anywhere and anything.

Berger's prose style, though academic, is mostly free of jargon and his takeaway points are on message. The visual world and how we process what we see has economic roots, more than ever in the advertising age, where visual stimuli are intended to foster our insecurities so that we consume what we don't actually need. Berger writes, “The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better... All publicity works upon anxiety.” In 2014 this criticism of advertising has become quite commonplace. Yet in spite of knowing better we continue to spend more than we need, as American credit card debt statistics will attest. But for some, particularly those of a naturally cynical disposition, such revelations are like the light in Plato's Cave, of which we can never get out of our mind and so the material world takes the form of a television commercial montage from which there is not much hope for escape.

See anything?

Berger ends his polemic with the challenge, “To be continued by the reader...” So some casual observations from a personal viewpoint then: More than forty years since Berger laid down his arguments, exposure to visual stimuli has increased manifold, particularly since nearly everyone in a considerably broad age bracket in wealthy, industrialized countries carries a mini-computer in their pocket for which putting away seems somewhat difficult. This distraction (for even if one is doing work emails or reading an essay on Sufism in The New Yorker one is still distracted from one's immediate environment or company). As that rare young(ish) person who has decided to disavow smartphones from my life (at least for now, though I am considering procuring one for work reasons), I've noticed that most people are constantly occupied with their mini-entertainment systems. Often on subway trains it is just myself, young children and the very old letting our eyes wander. Not only are most of us then not witnessing our environment, but for those who have chosen to see, what we get for our effort is a collection of individuals hunched over their devices in defiantly anti-social postures. As a photographer whose significant inspiration comes from the streets, these are rather uninspiring tableaux from which to work, and which I nearly always refrain from shooting (pictures where the subject is disengaged from his or her environs are almost always boring). The pleasure of seeing then has become a little lonelier.

Indeed in my frequent travels to historic cultural sites, I find most tourists rarely let their vision wander over the ruins, the palaces, the ruined castles, the verdant riverbank, but scuttle about clutching iphones, ipads, and large digital cameras. Seeing only through their screens, they take dozens of pictures, sometimes hundreds, probably all of them very bad, as a very good photograph requires some consideration as to point-of-view, composition, and the angle of light. But I have noticed that in refraining from picture-taking altogether, I am much better at sensory-mapping my experience so that the memory is stronger, and when conjured, is a more sensational nostalgia-high than what one hundred photographs could ever deliver. The point of travel is not picture taking, but that the experience enriches your life so that is fuller, deeper, better lived. Anyways, as there are a million images of any place on earth accessible via the internet, I don't often see the point in taking yet another redundant picture just so that I can prove I've been somewhere (even if my artistic avocation is that of photographer). 

 Our evolving landscape 
(though particularly eloquently rendered here by the wonderful Jakob Holdt)

To be honest, I'm rather concerned with our collective future of seeing in general and the state of photography in particular. Though I would advocate the use of film over digital to any photographer who can afford the traditional medium, it is not the digital camera itself that worries me but its application. When you need to take fifty images when one will suffice then you are not seeing properly, or perhaps not at all. And with everyone staring with Pavlovian anxiety at their phones awaiting “likes” and “faves” the corporate advertisers have to work that much harder to secure our attention, becoming louder, larger, and more obnoxious in order to cut a slice of our diminished attention spans. It all compounds so that the world becomes an increasingly uninteresting place to exist. If this is so, what would become the point of seeing? You might as well join the screenheads, for at least they can filter their content when the Earth has become a neon-glowing billboard.

That would be an absolute shame because the world still has moments of extraordinary sublimity-- you just have to look longer, see more. Seeing took me years to learn to do properly and had I never left my native Los Angeles, perhaps I never would have learned. But coming to Japan and later traveling in India, Africa, and the Middle East, whose places' various scripts I was illiterate to understand, striking visual cues helped me navigate and make sense of my environment. From these cues slowly emerged colors, then forms, and eventually mise-en-scene which could be extravagantly beautiful but not by any conventional standard (which is easy to see anyways and psychologically conditioned for us, right, Mr. Berger?). I would say this hypothesized moment of beauty is inexplicable, but that is being evasive. What I'm talking about is a personal vision, one that arrives only with experience, not just with seeing, but also from reading, loving, learning, losing. It is the sum of life lived with eyes open. 

So I worry then for the future. When I was a child I had video games and television but I gave those up for girls and football in High School. I didn't have a mobile until I was 25 years old and I've never owned a smartphone. And it's taken me this long to learn how to see. How will today's children, weaned on screens from the age of two, ever learn how to see so that the world might become a uniquely complex personal vision? I'm not talking about photography here but a life philosophy attached to seeing. Listen, I'm not always pessimistic. I like to believe that the current trend of 'mindfulness' -- call it neo-Luddite if you will-- will become a full-fledged movement to disconnect from our convenient distractions for the more arduous, but infinitely more rewarding pleasure of wandering and seeing and, eventually, understanding.


  1. Yes, a classic book. I wouldn't necessarily despair of these young-uns and their new fangled technology though. As every oldster since Plato at least has bemoaned the next generation, so it probably is today. There is at least as good a chance with all this exposure to the screen image that the youngsters will develop a more subtle understanding of imagery than we ever did. And youngsters do become (if they are lucky) oldsters. Hope springs eternal, and all that.

    1. Thanks for reading. I do agree. We are an evolving species and for all our capacities to self-destruct, doing better in 2014 than a pessimist in 1945 might have envisioned.